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Costa Rica's Education System

Last Updated: Nov 02, 2011

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 - Costa Rica

In 1869, Costa Rica made education both free and mandatory for all its citizens. Since that time, the country's education system has grown to include more than four thousand schools. Over the last three decades the country has invested nearly 30% of its national budget in primary and secondary education. The literacy rate is 95% in residents age 15 and older, and the country boasts more teachers than policemen.

There are public elementary and high schools in every community, and all students are required to wear a uniform, to lessen the economic distinctions among classmates. Public elementary schools consist of six years of education followed by five to six years of high school. The first three years of high school are dedicated to general education while the remaining two or three provide students with specialized training. Upon graduation, students receive a title in arts or sciences and a Costa Rican Bachillerato Diploma, which is accredited by the Costa Rican Ministry of Education.

Private schools are scattered throughout the country, some of which offer classes in several languages, and follow U.S. curriculums. Degrees offered include the International Baccalaureate Diploma, accredited by the IBO in Switzerland, and a U.S. High School Diploma, accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

Colleges & Universities

A college education in Costa Rica not only promises excellent academics, but a sound financial investment. The country has both public and private universities, from the highly regarded University of Costa Rica to the internationally recognized University for Peace. Tuition generally runs about 50% less than in-state rates for most U.S. schools, and students get the added value of spending time abroad. You’ll learn Spanish, make friends from around the world, and graduate with little debt and a first-rate education.

If you’re already studying at a U.S. or other foreign university, schedule an appointment with your study abroad office – your school may offer semester or yearlong options in Costa Rica. If you plan to study in Costa Rica independently, or for more than a year, you’ll probably have to arrange many details yourself, from admissions tests to federal student loans. Note that non-residents are required to have a student visa to study more than three months in Costa Rica.

Costa Rican universities give most courses in Spanish, though individual classes in English are available. Several private universities offer entire majors in English. Those include the Universidad de Iberoamerica (UNIBE) that specializes in medicine; the Universidad Latinoamericana de Ciencia y Tecnologia (ULACIT), which offers baccalaureate through doctorate degrees in many subjects; and the Universidad Veritas, a national leader in architecture and design. 

The University of Costa Rica, which offers more than 100 undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, is Costa Rica’s highest ranking public university. Tuition costs about $80 per credit hour for undergraduates, and $140 for graduate students, plus miscellaneous fees of around $100 per year. For an average undergraduate course load of 17 credit hours per semester, you’ll pay around $2,800 in tuition per year, plus living expenses ($500-$1,500 per month, depending on your lifestyle). A graduate student with 14 credit hours will pay about $4,000 per year, plus living expenses. Other public universities, such as the Universidad a la Distancia (UNED, Distance Learning University), have comparable credit hour costs.

The University for Peace, located in Cuidad Colon, and the INCAE Business School, in Alajuela, are two well-respected universities that cater mostly to international students and offer classes in English. The United Nations and former Costa Rica President, Rodrigo Carazo, helped found The University for Peace. Its mission is to promote peace, understanding and tolerance and the school offers several related master’s degree programs – Gender and Peace Building, International Law and Human Rights, and Peace Education – and costs around $26,000 per year, not including living expenses. Financial aid is available based on need and academics, from a 25% tuition waiver to full expenses paid.

INCAE, ranked by the Wall Street Journal in 2005 as the #10 international business school, was founded in 1964 by Harvard Business School, USAID, and the private sector in Central America. Today, it offers four master’s programs – a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA, English and Spanish); a Master’s in Agribusiness Management (MIAM, English); a Global Real Estate Management degree (GREM, English and Spanish); and a Global Executive MBA (EMBA, Spanish). Tuition for the 21-month MBA program is under $57,000, including living expenses – an excellent deal when compared to $84,000 yearly tuition for Harvard Business School. INCAE is fully accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International (AACSB) and the European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS).

Compared to college tuitions in the United States, universities here are a steal. For the 2010-2011 school year, the University of California-Berkeley charges undergraduate tuition of $6,230 for in-state students and $17,670 for non-residents – plus room and board of over $12,000. Williams College, U.S. News & World Report’s top-ranked liberal arts university collects $41,190 in tuition for the 2010-2011 academic year, plus $11,000 for room and board. 

According to recent studies by Kiplinger, even with the average financial aid package, student loans and possible scholarships, most students will spend $11,000-$21,000 per year, and will graduate $10,000-$22,000 in debt. In Costa Rica, your savings and financial aid will stretch further, and you are guaranteed a quality education and a college experience unlike any other. 

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